How citizen patrols and local groups are helping SF's Tenderloin show signs of improvement

ByKen Miguel and Phil Matier KGO logo
Thursday, November 10, 2022
How local groups are helping SF's Tenderloin show signs of improvement
San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood was a nightmare of homelessness, tents, illegal drugs, and filthy streets. But things are starting to improve.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For years, the Tenderloin has been a containment zone for San Francisco's vice. During the pandemic, it became the epicenter for the region's homeless and for rampant drug use and sales.

Has it gotten better?

Some say yes, and as ABC7 News found out, it all comes down to what block you live on and where money is being spent to make a difference.

At the height of the pandemic, the Tenderloin was a mess. You could not turn a corner without seeing drug use out in the open or streets lined in tents. Residents, businesses, nonprofits, and even the University of California, all demanded action.

ABC7's Phil Matier spoke with Kate Robinson, the executive director of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District.

VIDEO: 50 Blocks: Stories from SF's Tenderloin neighborhood

About 800 homeless people from the Tenderloin district have been housed since San Francisco's mayor declared an emergency in the area. But housing the remaining homeless population, many of whom suffer from drug addiction, has proved challenging.

Phil Matier: "There's been a lot of attention paid, has it paid off?"

Kate Robinson: "I would say yes. You know, I've been in this neighborhood for 13 years and really saw it at its worst during the beginning of the pandemic. I've never seen such neglect in my life."

Matier: "Pretty amazing. It was jaw-dropping. So it had to get better."

Robinson: "It had to. We saw what I think was the bottom. And I remember feeling really terrified for the neighborhood children to go back to school and wondered what's going to happen, and feel like the city and the community really came together and marched to City Hall. You know, residents, families saying enough is enough here. And that's when the mayor declared the emergency."

Matier: "But we're still seeing the tents."

Robinson: "But it's dramatically improved. We're in the area outside of where Urban Alchemy is operating. They, to me, were the game changer."

Urban Alchemy is a nonprofit that puts regular people on the streets instead of police to address the Tenderloin's most basic problems. According to Robinson, their presence has changed the atmosphere on the blocks they patrol.

Matier: "So the street ambassadors have sort of cleared the way then to clear things up... is that right?"

Robinson: "Yeah. They really engage with people to create safe spaces. So it's possible for others to do the work that we do in activating spaces."

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But you can now literally see the difference in the Tenderloin.

Matier: "Across the street, there is one of the ambassadors that keeps an eye on things. You notice how clean the street and the sidewalk is. They end here. Take a look at the rest of the street that we just walked through. So what's the difference between these two blocks?"

Robinson: "Urban Alchemy is the difference between these two blocks."

Matier: "What does that mean to the viewer?"

Robinson: "It means that Urban Alchemy is present at that, on the south side of Eddy Street and south of here, as well as mid-Market. And that's where we see really active, clean and safe spaces."

Matier: "Why aren't they up there?"

Robinson: "Funding."

Matier: "So we only have enough to do half the Tenderloin or a quarter of the Tenderloin?"

Robinson: "Yeah."

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The city has provided $4 million to fund community-based improvement projects.

Matier: "Is this one them?"

Robinson: "This is one of them. This is the Urban Alchemy oasis, this used to be a parking lot with a lot of negative activity inside."

Matier: "This used to be a thieves market and a homeless camp. I remember it."

Robinson: "Absolutely, this is the transformation. We see lot of residents come and bring their dogs. This is one of the few dog parks in the neighborhood. A lot of people come and have meetings here. Or have their lunch here. It's an open space for anybody. And that's why I really do have hope for this neighborhood in seeing where this intersection was even a year ago."

Matier "This is another one of your successes."

Across the street, city funding helps pay for monitors to watch children play.

Robinson: "Absolutely. This was renovated right before shelter-in-place began, and it's active until 8 p.m. with children and families. We have hundreds of visitors to the parks, nearby residents coming and accessing the parks every day."

Matier: "This was ground zero for a lot of the drug dealing and a lot of the tents right here."

Robinson: "Absolutely. This was it."

Matier: "Now, can we honestly report that this is the way it is seven days a week now?"

Robinson: "Yes."

VIDEO: Children trying to navigate past users shows severity of SF's drug crisis

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Part of the plan to keep it that way comes from a program called Safe Passage that helps both kids and adults cross these streets. It's adding eyes to the streets as the Tenderloin has been home to some of the most dangerous for pedestrians in the city. Robinson says the program costs $500,000 a year.

Robinson: "It's an incredible operation. We're very focused on training, training ourselves to be safe when we're looking after each other's safety and really connecting with people when we're out here and changing what it feels like for a child to walk home from school. Changing what their memories of growing up in the Tenderloin would feel like and knowing that they are looked after."

And where there is increased presence, there is more change.

Robinson: "This is also an example of transformation."

Matier: "So this used to be a post office?"

Naomi Maisel runs La Cocina Municipal Marketplace at Hyde Street and Golden Gate Avenue.

Robinson: "Yes. And now it is what?"

Naomi Maisel: "It's a food hall, yes, it's a community space and has seven different businesses inside, all through a nonprofit food business incubator."

Matier: "When did you guys open up?"

Maisel: "We opened officially last year in April for to-go, in June for in-person buying. So all of the women in this space are low income women of color and immigrant women who have started their own businesses. They're all different."

Matier: "What about the customers?"

Maisel: "All of the customers are from all walks of life. We get people from the community. We get residents, we get folks from City Hall, Federal Building, folks from local nonprofits. It's a really nice community hub."

Matier: "So people feel safe coming here."

Maisel: "I would say so. Yeah, that's actually our goal is to be able to activate out this blighted corner, right? Like before we moved in, this building wasn't showing any love. It was closed down. So inevitably that invites in folks who take over and have unsavory activations. So our charge and coming into this space is not only to create a really welcoming, safe, inviting community space, not only to create economic opportunity and ownership for these businesses, but to actually, in doing so, positively activate the corner and make it a place that enhances and brightens up the neighborhood and makes it a place where folks want to walk down the street, want to come by, want to come inside."

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It isn't just about getting people off the streets and inside, it's about creating places outside for those people who live here, where they can feel safe now, too. Mike Voung is with the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco.

Matier: "Mike, what are we looking at here?"

Mike Vuong: "This is Safe Passage Park. And so this is... I don't know. It's so hard to explain. There's a million things. There's an extension of the sidewalk. It's the ability to activate open spaces. It's reclaiming the streets for the residents and the stakeholders in the Tenderloin."

Matier: "It was about a year and a half ago they said they couldn't step outside their house because they didn't feel safe walking on the sidewalk."

Vuong: "So the idea of Safe Passage Park came up, right? How do we extend the streets utilizing really, really have people activated? And so when this opened up, there were boxing programs offered by the Salvation Army Park Center. There were special events being held. We did a rent relief application event here. We've hosted a food voucher programs here. Every Wednesday we do rapid COVID testing and so it became this thing where like it's a space that people can really come out and be a part of what's happening in the neighborhood. And outside of just the special opportunities - you know there are people who just use the space to sit down, it is a reprieve for what is happening in the Tenderloin."

Yes, most of the money to fund these programs is coming from the city. But for those on the ground in the Tenderloin, it is the people who live and work in the neighborhood that are making change happen.

Robinson: "People refer to this neighborhood as a containment zone. And the good things in this neighborhood also get contained. Nobody outside of the neighborhood who's here every day gets to see that there is partner-like collaboration, like I've never experienced before and care and cooperation like I've never experienced. It exists here. That's what gives us the hope and shows us that this is possible. We just need more support to be able to sustain it."

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